July 27, 2010

Handling the Next Marjah With Care

War has a way of turning the random into causality. It was only appropriate that a realtime example would simultaneously validate the latest Wikileaks that US and NATO forces in Afghanistan underreport civilian casualties. The Afghan government, citing internal intelligence, claims that between 39 and 52 civilians were killed in a rocket attack in Rigi village, part of Sangin district in Helmand province.

NATO says no such incident occurred.

"All fires were observed and accounted for and struck the intended target," read a statement from Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, NATO communications director. "Coalition forces reported six insurgents killed in the strike, including a Taliban commander, a report verified by ground observation and intelligence sources... Any speculation at this point of alleged civilian casualties in Rigi village is completely unfounded.”

Afghans tell a different, more jumbled story played out over five days. Preliminary reports of an attack began to circulate Friday, the date of the incident, but weren’t picked up by media outlets due to lack of source verification. Abdul Ghafaar staggered into a Kandahar hospital on Saturday and offered the first battle account to the Associated Press. Other witnesses soon turned up.

The final picture describes the Taliban evacuating Rigi village days before what would become the battle with NATO forces. Witnesses say the Taliban opened fire from the tops of several buildings and NATO answered; rockets struck a compound where a group of families allegedly sought refuge. The BBC said it sent an Afghan reporter to Rigi to interview residents, who described the attack and said they had buried 39 people. The Afghan government put the figure at 52.

Colonel Wayne Shanks, an ISAF spokesman, said the location of the reported deaths was "several kilometers away from where we had engaged enemy fighters.”

An admittedly fascinating trait of war is how easily a rift opens between six dead Taliban and up to 50 civilians, with no middle-ground. At least not yet. Investigators will swarm Rigi now that the story has gone international. This is no guarantee of truth though. Admiral Smith insisted, “We are conducting a thorough joint investigation with our Afghan partners and will report any and all findings when known.”

The problem, as many more people now realize thanks to Wikileaks, is that US and NATO command have systematically downplayed civilian casualties since the war began. One tactic blames the Taliban even when NATO forces unduly threatened civilians. And a number of ghastly cover-ups already occurred this year, including the infamous killing of three women near Gardēz, the capital of Paktia province.

So grisly was the incident in Khataba village that Vice-Admiral William H. McRaven himself, chief of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), visited the village days after the cover-up became exposed. The London Times reported that McRaven wasn’t pleased with the Times’ presence, but he likely abhorred their headline: “US army chief begs Afghans to forgive.”

So is Rigi’s future the same?

The question’s magnitude surpasses most civilian casualties. It could be argued that all errant air-strikes bear strategic consequences by eroding support within Afghanistan’s government and its population. Yet some civilian casualties weigh more than others. Just recently the US air-strike in Kunduz province approved by a German commander ensured that no new German forces were headed to Afghanistan. A rocket strike in the opening days of Operation Moshtarak left 12 Afghans dead and hijacked the US narrative in Marjah for months.

The question becomes irrelevant if Rigi turns out to be Taliban smoke and mirrors, but is worth examining for one overriding reason. If not today, US officials will inevitably face a real episode in Sangin now that US forces are finally assuming control of the area after nine years of British command.

Depending on whether US or UK troops potentially fired the rockets, a terrible last or first impression was just made.

Sangin is the most notorious Afghan village in Britain. Labeled a Taliban “honey pot,” Sangin is a death trap for UK troops, claiming 100 of the 324 fallen. Although they’re hardly to blame, progress on the security, economic, and social fronts after nine years is minimal. UK officials flanked out after the transfer announcement to dispel the image of retreat, Basra still fresh on their minds, but honor is separate from military gains.

Vastly outnumbered in relation to the Taliban and the population, Sangin locals claim UK troops can’t move 100 yards outside their base without triggering Taliban fire. Mines blanket the spider-web of dirt roads and paths. Mohammad Jan said British influence fails to extend to his shop on the district center’s outskirts. The fields beyond are Taliban country. And without constant interaction with the locals, all Britain has to show for its years in Sangin is legitimate hatred - not the recipe for counterinsurgency.

David Gill had visited the village three times during 2008. Though UK officials highlighted improving schools and a “thriving bazaar,” when Gill returned in August 2009 he found, “a ghost town in Death Valley where you drive through and all you see is a sign flapping in the wind.” Having traveled Afghanistan on assignment, Gill explained that some children wave in more secure areas, but in Sangin you feel “the intense hatred of a people who hate everything you stand for.”

He isn’t exaggerating. One year later and UK marines are just trying to stay alive until their final shift. Winning “hearts and minds” has taken a back-seat to survival. Hard as it is to blame them, checking out early has made the situation that much more intolerable. One soldier bitterly remarked, “It's a joke. Everyone just wants to get out with their legs intact. The population hates us around here."

Out in the streets Haji Akhatar Mohammad affirmed this belief: “The British had been there for a long time. They were not helpful and there was no good result from them. They didn’t understand the people and there was too much fighting. People are happy the British are moving.”

Mohammad Wali echoed, “The British killed people and disturbed people, nothing else. The British don’t know our culture.”

Given that potential civilian casualties merely add to the well of hatred, the best case scenario for NATO as a whole and America in particular is that US troops had no hand in the Rigi incident, if there is one. A twist in Sangin is that US troops apparently might find a warm welcome. Haji Akhatar Mohammad ditched his negatively when replying, “The US troops help the people and have had good results in other districts. They have increased security and found people jobs.”

Mohammad Wali disagrees along with many Afghans in Marjah and Kandahar, but the possibility remains that any change could be good change after such a dark period of British rule. Implication of UK troops in firing the rockets could enhance the perception that US troops will be more accommodating and less heavy handed. The downside should be obvious by now.

If US troops are responsible for any potential casualties and local residents become aware, and they will, a worse first impression couldn’t have been made.

US troops offer no certainty of improving upon UK gains. Though NATO’s force ratio will increase with President Barack Obama’s surge, Marjah has proven that upwards of 10,000 soldiers are necessary to permanently hold a moderately sized village and its surrounding rural area. Sangin’s police are also considered totally corrupt. A change in attitude could go far, but America is likely to suffer similar logistics and operational problems as Britain, making every single incident crucial to winning over the population.

50 dead civilians would be an ominous start to what already feels like an endless battle. Don't believe any time-line.

What exactly happened in Sangin on July 23rd is of grave consequence to US strategy in Afghanistan. The US media is treating the casualty reports as standard and Sangin as a routine village, like they’ve been covering it all along, but the US press kept silent on Sangin from 2001 all the way through Operation Moshtarak. Here, in the heart of Helmand province, US troops will find even more intense fighting 70 miles upstream from Marjah.

Another “opium, Taliban stronghold.” The next Marjah.

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